This is a guest post by the following writers, all of whom are undergraduate students enrolled in “Introduction to Interdisciplinary Studies” at Plymouth State University. The university is currently restructuring itself around interdisciplinary clusters, so I asked these students to weigh in, and offer their most informed ideas, questions, and critiques as the university embarks on this new path. UPDATE on 4/27/2016: please note that this post is heavily edited by me for clarity, continuity, and focus. To engage with individual students directly, you can contact them via Twitter and they can connect you to their ePorts so you can read their own writings, or you can comment below and students will check back in as the semester winds down. Adding unmediated voices to the conversations is important, and this post is certainly mediated by me as both an editor and as the professor of the class.
Gillian McCreedy, Erin Murphy, Abby Taper, Janet Currier, Morgan Maxner, Megan Suda, Darian Rideout, Stelios Eleftheriou, Brandon Rich, Shelby Chapman, Kate Burgess, Colby Downes, Stacy Navis, Trevor Garvin, Andreana Sideris, Christine McElreavy, Mariah Davis, Paige Constantineau, and Maya Infascelli
What can Plymouth State University learn from its Interdisciplinary Studies students as it embarks on this transformation? What is important to you about interdisciplinary approaches to education? What is important to the average undergraduate? What is important to the public that PSU serves?
Students want the ability to control our own education rather than feel like we’re being shuffled through a system. We have a lot of debt when we graduate from college, so we need our education to help us start a career; sometimes it works better for us to focus on what we are passionate about and what we might like to do after graduation and design an education based on those interests rather than starting with the educational plan and then just looking for a job once we complete it. This is different than job training, though. This is about knowledgeable and innovative people working collaboratively on real-world projects and issues, which will help us develop flexibility and adapt to change more easily. This is what the new landscape of career looks like, and we can be prepared for it by connecting our schoolwork to the world outside of college. Then, as our careers change and develop over the years, we are ready to change with them. For this reason, we still believe that General Education is key, since it allows us to have broader skills and knowledge that can help us as our fields evolve in new directions over the years.
We want to stress the idea of applied learning again, since a great idea that seems to go along with the concept of clusters is the opportunity to further internship and experiential knowledge in organizations and businesses outside of PSU. We really hope PSU takes this seriously, and helps us more easily connect with opportunities that extend past our classroom walls as we study.
One concern that we have in looking at the plan as it is now, is that the clusters seem potentially limiting. President Birx wants to bring the departments together and solve real world problems while in an academic setting. These clusters are bringing disciplines together, just like Interdisciplinary Studies. But we are worried that we are just defining these clusters based on disciplines, and that by limiting ourselves to the seven of them, we are possibly just creating a larger version of the tunnel vision that people like Moti Nassani talk about in his writing about interdisciplinarity. We think clusters should be more open, a “come and go” style, where anyone can, at any time, request several disciplines to create a cluster that will solve a specific problem. Disciplines are key to interdisciplinarity, so we want the clusters to value the expertise from departments while enabling people to work together in new and changing ways across those silos. The “fruit salad” metaphor is a good one for clusters. We can retain disciplinary expertise, while combining things together in a new way.
Finally, we want people to remember that communication and empathy are key values in interdisciplinary work, so they should be valued as a core part of the process and goals for our new clusters.
What are some of the most helpful basic ideas that you learned in your introductory Interdisciplinary Studies work (for example, from Allan Repko) that you think all PSU faculty, staff, and students should know as we head down this path?
- Know the values at the core of interdisciplinary work: perspective taking, critical thinking, empathy, ethical consciousness, humility, appreciation of diversity and ambiguity, civic engagement, entrepreneurship, love of learning, abstract thinking;
- Know the history of interdisciplinarity and the disciplines in higher education;
- Know the definition of “interdisciplinary,” and think about purpose, process, and product in that definition.
- Know why the disciplines matter to interdisciplinary projects and fields.
What kinds of experiences could students have in clusters? What ideas do you have for curriculum or for any part of the educational journey? What would you want to DO in a cluster?
Students could embark on multi-field projects within a cluster and get experience working in a variety of fields, not just the one main one they are majoring in. We hope that projects won’t just involve students; we hope that students will be able to have input in the design of projects as well, which is central to our investment in them and also to our ability to identify our own interests and society’s needs. First-Year Seminar would be a perfect place to introduce clusters, but it would be great if professors could team-teach these courses, and rotate in and out of different courses so they could model interdisciplinary work and collaboration as it is introduced. First-Year Seminar should in some ways explain the challenges and barriers that universities set up to doing interdisciplinary work so students can come up with ways around them.
We would love to see creative courses emerge, but not just courses in clusters, but courses betweeen clusters. It is important that clusters really show a new way to work, between and across silos, so that as culture changes, we can do current work in new fields as they emerge. We hope cluster-related courses will really be exciting.
We would want freedom. We understand that there’s a structure for a liberal arts or any undergraduate education, but students should be able to have a way to form their cluster or major in a way that allows them to deeply focus on what they want to do, rather than have to take a series of courses assigned by a major. Obviously, this includes a great deal of advising, but IDS students feel happy and powerful knowing that they have hand selected their own degree. How can this cluster initiative allow all PSU students to benefit from the kinds of self-directed learning that we do in IDS?
What structures should we change, dump, develop here at PSU to help us work in these new ways? What infrastructure do we need/not need?
We think Gen Ed is important, but we wish it connected more with where we want to go in our lives after college. We think alternative Gen Ed should be a thing! Projects, independent study: let’s try new ideas to let us cover general topics in ways that are more customized to our interests and ideas. In addition, we need Gen Eds that are truly interdisciplinary, not just skills-based. This will help students understand the value of interdisciplinary education, so that cluster work will be appreciated.
We also think the residential halls should not be left out of the cluster conversations. Can we organize them around clusters or academics so that we can engage our residential life with our academic work.
What excites you about working in a cluster?
We imagine students working to help or create on actual projects. A project idea might involve a practical application of skills, rather than solely an accumulation of knowledge and theory. For example, instead of taking a class on social work, students will be out in the field, working alongside professors with NGO’s or social services, observing their learning, applying book theory, and gaining hands on experience. Along the way, there should be “checkpoints,” which could involve biweekly reflection papers, evaluations, powerpoints, etc. Research would support the work– we call it a “need to know” approach, where you research something because you REALLY need to know it. Afterwards, they should have to conceptualize their work, reflect on their learning, and present the importance and the significance of their work. That way, students are gaining experience and knowledge rather than just credit and test scores. It’s also lucrative to employers to see that students are engaged in their field at an early age as an undergrad. Credits should be dependent on how much work students do, not just whether or not we sat through a course in a classroom. In-field reviews by mentors can validate the work that students have done, so maybe not all evaluation has to come from a professor.
We think there are IDS characteristics that would improve every program, every major, or every cluster on campus: do they have integrated courses? do they use team teaching (different views, especially applicable to integrated courses)? are there applied learning experiences that get students involved in the field outside of the classroom? are there capstone experiences like ours that help students understand the work they have done in light of the next steps they will take in life? are there thesis or other opportunities for students to contribute to the body of scholarship in their field? are there service-learning opportunities or volunteer hours needed that are related to the field? are there non-disposable projects so students can collaborate and contribute?
What else should IDS students say to PSU as we get this started?
- Ignore any disciplinary bias, go into this with an open mind and be open to new ideas. Don’t be afraid to offer your ideas about how different fields can connect and advance.
- Students should be encouraged to work across clusters, not just inside them. All students should work in interdisciplinary ways as at least a part of their college education.
- Integration is key, but we cannot lose the core disciplines because without them, we don’t have interdisciplinary studies.
- Don’t confuse interdisciplinarity with transdisciplinarity, and try to understand the way that academic disciplines can connect with and also limit nonacademic stakeholders.
- We really want to stress that we need to see more collaborative teaching. Don’t let money stand in the way of that. We think it would really change the way the university works, for the better.
- Look to what other schools are doing. Answer questions by looking at other schools and seeing how they solved their problems.
- Interdisciplinary Studies majors already exist here. You should build on our work, let us teach you about the theory that we have learned, and look at our programs to see how we can lay a foundation for this new initiative.